In an effort to bolster her flagging career and recapture public attention, aging pop star Madonna has begun exploiting Judaism for personal gain.
Her latest effort has been to rename herself after the Jewish queen, Esther.
A gentile woman, best known for parading around publicly in a pointy, cone-shaped bra, is hardly the ideal spokesperson for the serious, millennia-old study of kabbala, mainstream rabbis agree. But Rabbi Philip Berg whose organization, the Kabbalah Centre (K.C.), is Madonna's spiritual base, seems content to let "The Material Girl" flout her latest religious passion - his organization - before the public eye.
After apparently exhausting her own religion for its sensationalistic value (at one point she wore huge crucifixes), the pop star is now using Jewish symbolism with the same air of frivolity - flashing neon signs with the Hebrew name of Hashem at her concerts. She has also released a video where she is strapped to an electric chair, her arm tattooed with Hebrew letters and sporting tefillin (phylacteries).
In a recently syndicated essay, best-selling author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach publicly dressed down the Kabbalah Centre by asking its founder, Berg, to "Do us all a favor, and dump Madonna as your principal spokesperson."
"I'm a fair critic of the Kabbalah Centre, because I acknowledge what they've achieved, and I do think they started out with the right intentions," says Boteach in a telephone interview with the CJN. Boteach says he knew Philip Berg (a former insurance salesman) when Berg "first started writing books, and no one was reading them."
The problem, he says, came after the Toronto-based organization opened a branch in California and started attracting one Hollywood star after another. The Kabbalah Centre "could have been successful without them," he laments. And, he adds, for every person they turn on with a dubious celebrity endorsement, there are a lot more they are turning off.
Regarding Madonna's recent video, in which she is shown wearing tefillin, Boteach says, "I would encourage her to first put her clothes back on - then put on tefillin."
But the Kabbalah Centre has more problematic issues than its poor choice of celebrity endorsement. Locally, the organization has the dubious reputation of being a sort of Judaism-lite at best, a cult at worst. Most rabbis interviewed for this article also said they were apprehensive about using their names in print because the organization "has a reputation for suing people who speak out against them."
"The protocol is for Orthodox Jews to go to a beit din (religious court) when there is an issue with another Jew," noted one local rabbi. "The Kabbalah Centre does not abide by this, saying they don't think they could get a fair ruling from a beit din because it would be slanted against them - jealous of their success."
Indeed, a Chabad rabbi from Toronto is currently facing a lawsuit for libel after being instrumental in having the K.C. banned in South Africa, notes one cult watch Web site. It also states that the Orthodox community of Toronto declared a harem on Berg (divorced him from the community). This occurred after the Task Force on Cults and Missionaries, Jews for Judaism, and others charged him with "unethical conduct and fraud, manipulation and violent intimidation, cult-like exploitation, hard-sell tactics and profit margins of up to 500%."
There are several reasons for categorizing the Kabbalah Centre as a cult, says Rabbi Daniel Olgin, who is trained to help families whose members have been sucked into cults and other problematic organizations like Jews for Jesus. K.C. members "focus on the leader of the organization (Berg), who has created an aura, a mystique around himself by, along with his (second) wife and their two sons, dressing all in white and being driven around in a limousine.
"While he has amassed millions (of dollars) through this organization," Berg gives kids, particularly in L.A., who have become very entranced with the organization, low-level, tedious work like cleaning toilets."
The bottom line regarding the Kabbalah Centre, says Olgin, is that it is a "New-Agey distortion" of Judaism. "A true practice of kabbala is only in combination with Torah study and the practice of mitzvot. Hollywood stars simply make a mockery of Judaism. Is Madonna converting? No. Is she keeping kosher and going to the mikvah? Of course not."
A local man who recently contacted the CJN says he felt scammed by the Kabbalah Centre, which, he feels, "preyed on (his) psyche." The man, who is also afraid of legal reprisals, told the CJN he was taken for thousands of dollars and, after sending the Kabbalah Centre almost his entire life savings, he is now trying to "sort out" both the psychological and financial aftermath of his involvement with the organization.
A friend gave him some of the K.C.'s tapes a few years ago, he says. Then, about a year ago, hoping to "promote certain areas" of his life like his career and finding a bashert (his intended soulmate), the man became involved with the organization through the Internet - taking classes, ordering materials - and sending donations. The voluntary donations, he says, morphed into solicitations for more and more money.
"The spiritual message really spoke to me, but the whole thing is wrong when they ask one to give all their life savings away in order to receive great abundance later," he said. "I know there is honest study of kabbala now, but not with these guys."
Clevelander Susan Muszynski, whose parents became involved with the Kabbalah Centre when her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998, feels the Centre "definitely attracts people who are vulnerable - who almost feel like they need a miracle in their life."
Susan admits she and her husband, Stuart, went to their own rabbis when her parents became enamored with the Centre in Boca Raton, where they were living. The Muszynskis felt some things were problematic about the organization, like the adherents' unquestioning devotion to Berg, whom they refer to as "The Rav."
For example, if a couple wanted to get married, they had to wait until Berg was available to perform the ceremony - no other rabbi could do it. And, she adds, members were not to attend services at other shuls, especially for religious holidays. Her parents were "allowed" to visit here (in Cleveland) for minor holidays like Chanukah.
When she visited her parents in Boca, Susan avoided attending services at the Centre, which she describes as unconventional - with people yelling out while the service was in progress, and loud group chants of "Immortality now!" She's still not quite sure what the implication of the phrase was, she says.
Her uncomfortable feelings toward the Centre, to which her father donated "generously," she said, have abated over the years. "If he could, my father would tell you that he couldn't have gotten through (the ordeal of his wife's illness) without the Kabbalah Centre."
Stuart Muszynski even made a donation to the organization to thank them for all they had done while his in-laws were alive.
Susan confesses, "When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, traditional medicine gave her a matter of months to live and offered nothing. My father began finding her alternative treatments and kabbala, and the truth is, the Centre offered a lot of hope and an amazing network of support."
Her mother lived four years after the diagnosis; years in which she was able to take cruises with her husband, celebrate their 50th anniversary together, and attend Stuart and Susan's 25th anniversary, as well as their grandson's bar mitzvah.
Maybe the alternative medicines and Kabbalah Centre were nothing more than a placebo effect, but for the extra years they gave her with her mother, Susan feels grateful.
While neither Stuart nor Susan was especially impressed with Rabbi Berg, they say they are happy their parents/in-laws "connected." My father was actually putting on tefillin, Susan notes happily, adding that, of course, it was tefillin that "had" to be blessed by "The Rav."
The couple notes that they were impressed with the members of the Centre who, they say, visited the hospital daily, bringing kosher food for Susan while she was in town and meditation tapes to soothe her mother.
Of course, there is the issue of the very expensive "kabbala water" ($106.50 per case of 1.5-litre bottles), which the Centre prescribed for washing Susan's mother's hair.
"My mother had dry hair to begin with, so it wasn't really necessary to wash her hair daily and, of course, as the illness progressed, it became increasingly difficult," explains Susan. "But (the Centre) insisted we use it daily."
"Jews with respect for authentic Judaism would do well to ponder the brisk business the Centre does in its snake oil for the soul," warns Rabbi Avi Shafran in a recent column titled "Trinkets and Truth." Those trinkets would include: "K2Oils" at $10 for a tiny vial, made with "pure kabbala water"; $84 "Knitted Blanket Protection" - sheets and blankets with Hebrew lettering; and $20 candles that promise to "inspire strength and certainty."
There are two kinds of kabbala water - regular "for healing and rejuvenation at $40 for a case of 1.5-litre bottles and "Pinchus Water," made annually and blessed for healing energy. The latter costs $106.50 for a case of 1.5-litre bottles.
The kabbala, says Shafran, is comprehensible only to initiates and has never been offered to uncomprehending masses. "That hasn't changed; the Kabbalah Centre has about the same relationship to true Jewish mystical tradition as Barney has to Tyrannosaurus Rex."
Will the real kabbala please stand up?
Kabbala has often been referred to by (understandably) confused reporters as a religion in itself. Thanks to Madonna who referred to its principles as "very punk rock," kabbala has even been referred to as a "punk rock religion."
In Jewish Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin describes kabbala as, "the name applied to the whole range of Jewish mystical activity. While codes of Jewish law focus on what it is God wants from man, kabbala tries to penetrate deeper, to God's essence itself." He further notes that because of those "who became mentally unbalanced while engaging in mystical activities," 17th-century rabbis legislated that kabbala should only be studied by married men over 40 who were also scholars of Torah and Talmud.
For millennia, says Dr. David Sheinkin, author of Path of the Kabbalah, kabbalists have viewed their path as embracing an entire (Jewish) way of life and have been very careful about whom they pass their teachings to because, "Just as dynamite can be very dangerous to the unskilled, so, too, is the kabbala regarded."
Cult expert Rick Ross watching Kabbalah Centre closely
Cleveland-born Rick Ross has become a much sought-after authority on cults, testifying as an expert witness on the subject in eight states and working internationally with law-enforcement organizations.
He has been quoted extensively internationally in newspapers and magazines and has appeared on TV and radio. His Web site, RickRoss.com, is one of the most comprehensive sites on the Internet about controversial groups and leaders. Four years ago, Ross launched two more Web sites: CultEducation.com, which features educational materials about cults, and CultNews.com for breaking stories.
Ross's expertise in cults had a humble beginning. In 1982, a messianic group similar to Jews for Jesus, infiltrated the Jewish nursing home in Arizona where his grandmother was a resident. Working with the director of the facility and the local Jewish community, Ross ended the problem.
That incident led to further involvement with the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, and appointment by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) to a national committee focused on cults.
In a telephone interview with the CJN, Ross said that the Kabbalah Centre, which he is "tracking closely," parallels many of the characteristics used by groups classified as cults, like the Unification Church and Scientology. The Kabbalah Centre, he maintains, is "a totalitarian empire in which the Berg family controls everything."
Of all the organizations that study kabbala, stresses Ross, the Centre is the only one about which he received complaints - and those have come in abundance. Especially questionable are tactics like asking its followers for generous donations and/or slavish devotion to the group.
As an example, he points out one highly educated woman from a prominent Jewish family in London who became a full-time worker for the Centre. She lived in group housing, had no insurance, and after Ross did successful intervention work with her, she "walked away from the group with nothing but the clothes on her back."
The Kabbalah Centre, says Ross, really got their money's worth out of her, but she got nothing from them. In his opinion, she was brainwashed.
Another complaint Ross gets repeatedly from people whose family members have become caught up in the Centre, is the distancing of those involved in it from their family. It's common, he says, for someone whose spouse or partner is not enamored by the organization to be told to "break up with them; they're not spiritually right for you."
The kabbala that the Centre teaches is not really a legitimate practice as much as it is "a set of objects," says Ross. They focus on red strings, mystical water, and tremendously overpriced books of Zohar (core texts of kabbala) - which, adds Ross, they suggest people buy extra sets of - one for home, one for work, one for the car. And, he adds, the great majority of people can't even read these books.
"Can Madonna read Aramaic?" he asks rhetorically. "Of course not." But the group gets around this problem by suggesting a method called "scanning," in which the person simply looks at the pages. And, according to the Centre's Web site, one doesn't even have to do this much because: "...just being in the presence of the volumes creates an impenetrable shield of spiritual protection against the forces of chaos and negativity in the world."
Ross adds that the Centre's volumes of the Zohar are priced about three times higher than other copies of the book.
Although Kabbalah Centres are mushrooming globally, Ross says he doubts Cleveland will be a target location. "They target communities where Jews are not as tightly-knit and well organized as they are in Cleveland," he says. "Cleveland has a reputation as being one of the strongest Jewish communities in the country."